fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Scorch Trials by James Dashner YA fantasy book reviewsThe Scorch Trials by James Dashner

I wasn’t a huge fan of The Maze Runner by James Dashner, thinking its frenetic pace was as much weakness as strength and that its characterization was pretty thin (plus there was the whole “let’s not have anyone talk to each other or explain things” pet peeve of mine). I admit, however, that it probably would meet the needs of a particular reader — one who likes fast paced action that blows by any annoying plot holes and who isn’t particularly looking for a lot of in-depth characterization. That same sort of reader will probably find the sequel, The Scorch Trials, just as satisfying, though again, for my own tastes, it falls mostly short of being a good book. It’s going to be impossible to discuss The Scorch Trials without some spoilers for the first book, so fair warning.

The sequel picks up almost immediately after the end of The Maze Runner, the Gladers having been rescued after their escape from the Maze and brought to a dormitory, with Theresa, as the only girl, placed in a separate room. Turns out their escape, however, was only the end of Phase One of these trials, allegedly meant to somehow save the world from the “Flare” plague (amongst other disasters) by forming mysterious yet apparently necessary “patterns” in the test subjects. Phase Two begins with the unexplained disappearance of Theresa, the unexplained appearance of a bunch of dead bodies, and then a task to cross a barren wasteland filled with “Cranks” (those affected by the Flare to varying degrees) in order to arrive at “Safe Haven.” Along with the Cranks, who range from merely dangerously unpredictable to dangerously violent to dangerously-zombies-who-want-to-eat-you types, the Glades must also deal with a blistering sun, lethally violent storms, decapitating technology, and another group they apparently are in competition with in what may be a “Only One Group Survives” sort of contest.

The strength of The Scorch Trials is, again, relatively frenetic action, though I think the sequel has more pacing issues in terms of lag time, especially early on, where bouts of excitement are separated by somewhat repetitive and overly-long segments with the Gladers discussing what to do about their current situation. As with its predecessor, the strength is also somewhat of a weakness, as once again we move so quickly from excitement to excitement that few of the scenes really have a chance to build. A worse issue for me is that these scenes all feel very random and arbitrary. The background, of course, is that there are a lot of mind games being played with the Gladers by WICKED (the corporation doing the trials), so it’s hard to tell at this point whether the randomness will eventually have some cohesive rationale as opposed to the mind games being used as a Get Out of Jail Free card, letting an author just toss up whatever to create some excitement. Plot holes are still an issue — at one point I kept wondering why Thomas wasn’t using his telepathic abilities, almost as if the author had forgotten he had them, and in another scene a character just “escapes” just because the author needed him to for a future event. One’s annoyance at these moments will vary, probably with age as well as reading experience. I found them incredibly frustrating and evidence of slack writing.

Characterization remains slim. A lot of Glader Redshirters die, leaving the reader to care as little about their deaths as most of the surviving Gladers do. The main character, Thomas, is a bit too much of the PROTAGONIST, always stepping forward as needed or turning out to be special in some way. The two primary Gladers beyond Thomas leave little impact. A new female character is perhaps the most interesting of them all in the novel, though she plays pretty strictly to a type we’ve seen before.

World-building is just as slim, with little sense of place or rationale behind settings. We’re given a barebones explanation of the world, though we’re not sure we can trust it, but nothing feels fully formed and “lived in;” it feels rather like the characters are moving through movie sets.

To be honest, based on The Maze Runner, I wouldn’t have picked up The Scorch Trials had my son not finished book one recently for his summer reading list and wanted to move onto book two (I suppose that says something about its appeal to 13-yr-old boys: he found it “pretty good or OK” albeit with some issues). And it turned out to be pretty much as expected — a relatively mediocre YA that has a certain action appeal but that doesn’t stand up very well under a close eye and won’t satisfy those looking for more depth of character or world-building.

The Maze Runner — (2009-2016) Young adult. The Kill Order is a prequeul. Publisher: When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade — a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls. Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift. Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up — the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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